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Historians will face a daunting task in trying to assess Donald Trump’s presidency, which even the savviest of news consumers have struggled to follow.
It was clear from the very beginning that Trump would be a different kind of president than the U.S. had ever seen. By his second month in office, he had already signed his “Muslim ban” and seen his national security adviser resign in scandal, harbingers of the racial division and legal disputes that would be enduring themes throughout his time in office.
His first three years contained a number of controversies that, on their own, would have been the defining events of most previous presidencies — the Russia investigation, a trade war with China, family separation, the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. Along the way, Trump showed a unique ability to dominate the daily news cycle.
Then came 2020, which brought a world-altering pandemic and resulting economic collapse, nationwide racial justice protests and the most contentious presidential election in memory. Volumes could be written about just the past two weeks — which have featured a violent insurrection, a historic second impeachment and two of the most important Senate elections in modern history.
Why there’s debate
While there are many controversies that will be remembered from Trump’s presidency, the moment that will define his legacy is the assault on Congress by a violent mob of his supporters earlier this month, many say. The deadly insurrection, they argue, was the culmination of so many things that were quintessentially Trump — his disdain for the truth, the threat he posed to democracy and the deep divides between Americans he stoked. To others, the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus, which will lead to the deaths of more than 400,000 Americans on his watch, will be the enduring memory of his tenure.
Those with a more sympathetic view argue that Trump will be remembered for the way he harnessed the anger of everyday Americans, who had become fed up with political elites and the mainstream media. His supporters will also point to the booming economy he oversaw until the pandemic struck and the hundreds of conservative judges — including three Supreme Court justices — he appointed.
Others say it’s too early to know what Trump’s legacy will be. For most of his tenure, Trump’s signature brand of politics appeared destined to take over the Republican Party long after he’d left office. That may still happen. But backlash against Trump may have also sparked a much more progressive direction for the country.
Trump will leave Washington on Wednesday morning and will not attend Joe Biden’s inauguration. His post-presidency plans are still unknown. The prospects of another presidential run in 2024 will hinge on whether the Senate votes to convict him for inciting the Capitol riot and bar him from holding future office at the end of its impeachment trial, which could start as soon as this week.
Historians will view Trump as a unique threat to American democracy
“The sight of a violent mob inspired by President Trump smashing its way into the Capitol was more than just a shocking spectacle. It also highlighted one of the most dangerous parts of Mr. Trump’s legacy: the disbelief in democracy that has metastasized among many of his supporters.” — Trip Gabriel, New York Times
Whatever positive things he might have been remembered for were erased by the Capitol mob
“A politician has to work hard to destroy a legacy and a future in a single day. President Donald J. Trump managed it.” — Kimberley A. Strassel, Wall Street Journal
Trump’s failures on the coronavirus pandemic will stain his legacy
“A historian has to always account for the possibility that 50 years later a president would look better in some ways than he did to his own generation. That having been said, Donald Trump is not going to change the record. He was largely responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans who did not need to die.” — MSNBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss
Trumpism will continue to thrive without him
“I do know what the future should hold for this country. That is to say, a policy of Trumpism without Trump. ... Who knows what happened to him, but his program worked for the first years of his regime, and it will work again without him.” — R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., American Spectator
There’s no easy solution for the false reality that many Trump supporters believe in
“The nation’s truth problem goes far beyond a Trump problem. It is a long-term problem for the United States that millions of citizens have fallen deep down a conspiracy rabbit hole. I don’t know how to fix this.” — Daniel Dale, CNN
Racial tensions that Trump inflamed will take many years to calm
“Mr Trump did not invent America’s social fractures, least of all the racial ones that are as old as the republic. But no recent president has done more to widen them.” — Editorial, Financial Times
Trump shifted the political focus away from elites to the working class
“I believe the instinct that a significant amount of forgotten men and women were being inadequately considered by both political parties is a lasting legacy of this president, and beyond the political instinct involved, there is tremendous merit to revisiting the policy portfolio that addresses how the working class is treated in our country.” — David L. Bahnsen, National Review
Trump will be remembered for the suffering he inflicted on vulnerable people
“The Trump era will be remembered for many things, including corruption and extremism. For many people, it will also be remembered as a time of immense pain — a time when the nation’s highest power, a man purportedly the president to all Americans, turned his aim on them.” — Multiple authors, HuffPost
The Capitol attack put an end to Trumpism
“By encouraging this act of terror on our capital, Trump’s legacy is destroyed. The cranks, grifters and opportunists who promoted his unhinged conspiracies are discredited. Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr.’s hopes of political careers are over. Officeholders and party bosses who fanned the flames in order to claim the Trump mantle are disgraced.” — Jon Gabriel, Arizona Republic
America’s democracy is much less stable thanks to Trump’s influence
“The appalling reality is that Trump may get away with it. And in getting away with it he will have changed and degraded the norms governing American presidents.” — Robert Reich, Guardian
Trump will be remembered as the worst president ever
“Donald Trump is quite likely to assume the title as the worst president in American history.” — Joseph J. Ellis, Los Angeles Times
His impact on the federal judiciary will endure for a generation
“Both backers and critics of Trump agreed that he remade the federal judiciary — a change that will impact America for decades.” — John Fund, Fox News
It’s too early to assess Trump’s legacy
“While historians agree that Trump was a singular figure in the office, it will be decades before the consequences of his tenure are fully known.” — Jonathan Lemire, Zeke Miller and Darlene Superville, Associated Press
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Cover thumbnail photo: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert